County Officials: No Capewide Sewer System, No Regional Wastewater Authority

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By: Michael C. Bailey
Published: 07/20/12

As far as Andrew Gottlieb is concerned, a successful Capewide approach to wastewater management involves planning, not a regional sewer system and not a Cape Cod Wastewater Authority.

That was Mr. Gottlieb’s message to the Barnstable County Board of County Commissioners, which sat down with the executive director of the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative Wednesday for an update on the organization’s wastewater planning efforts.

The collaborative and the Cape Cod Commission are working on a regional wastewater plan, which is tentatively scheduled to be unveiled to the public by the end of the year. The plan will consider conventional and sustainable green infrastructure solutions in an effort to realize the most cost-effective approaches, with an emphasis on regional approaches in order to minimize costs to taxpayers.

“We’re looking at things with an open mind, looking at all the various options,” Mr. Gottlieb said.

Different approaches will be explored through a new program under development at the commission, an interactive tool that takes land use and water use data, buildout data, and cost and rate projections to extrapolate various outcomes of different water quality management approaches.

Mr. Gottlieb directly addressed two proposed concepts for dealing with wastewater on a regional basis, dismissing both as financially and logistically impractical.

A Capewide sewer system, Mr. Gottlieb said, is “off the table” due to its exorbitant cost and the resulting impact on property owners. “It’s not something I ever particularly thought was a good idea…that’s clearly an alternative that we absolutely will not recommend to you.”

A 2010 study conducted by Robert Ciolek, an independent consultant working with the collaborative, reported that the capital costs of regionwide sewering would run between $3.2 billion and $5.8 billion—a price range that does not take into consideration ongoing operating costs of $40 million to $68 million each year.

The capital costs alone break down to up to $27,000 per person, or $33,000 per property, although that assumes that all homeowners are paying in; Mr. Ciolek said the cost would be shouldered by no more than half of the Cape’s residential property owners, resulting in an increase in the per-property cost.

Mr. Gottlieb and the commissioners also voiced firm opposition to a recommendation from the county’s Special Commission on County Governance, an independent committee charged with examining the structure of county government. The report filed by the commission earlier this year included a proposal to create a regional wastewater management entity.

As envisioned by the special commission, this entity could have taxation authority in order to fund its management and oversight of wastewater management projects across the Cape.

Mr. Gottlieb went a step further and refuted claims that the creation of a regional sewer system and attached regulatory authority was a “done deal.”

“Whatever people want to say about it,” he said, “the allegation that this is an exercise to justify a decision that’s already been made to create one centralized treatment system for the entire region is patently false.”

Mr. Gottlieb indicated that the final plan will encourage greater intermunicipality cooperation for managing wastewater, but gave no further details as the plan is still in development beyond remarking, “We’re going to continue to look at some of the issues that prevent towns that share a resource from developing joint solutions more readily than they have.”

He also said he is encouraging towns that are developing a municipal wastewater plan to continue doing so, so they will be better prepared to act as interveners in a pending lawsuit involving the county.

“Invest in your local planning,” Mr. Gottlieb said, “because in any outcome, having a local plan that reflects your needs, your water bodies, and your community character and cost issues will always put you in a better place than not having a plan…if the federal courts intervene, in an extreme example, and impose a solution, you’re always in a better position in the remedy phase of a trial to go to the judge and say ‘We have a plan, here’s what we’d like you to tell us what we need to adopt.’ ”

In 2010, the Conservation Law Foundation and Buzzards Bay Coalition submitted a letter of intent, the first step toward filing a lawsuit, alleging that the US Environmental Protection Agency had failed to meet its obligations under the federal Clean Water Act to control nitrogen loading in the Cape’s coastal embayments. The Barnstable County Board of County Commissioners and the commission were also named in that letter.

The county was involved with settlement negotiations until November 2011, and in January an agreement had been reached and the terms were to be announced in April, but earlier this year settlement talks fell through and the matter could be headed to court.

Mr. Gottlieb advised any town considering involved as interveners to retain special legal counsel, because standard town legal counsel is likely to lack knowledge of and experience in environmental law.

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